Friday, May 7, 2010


with Rebecca Watson as Dolly Tate (photo: Diane Sobiewski)


It was suggested to me that I devote this week's blog to some thoughts about what makes a great audience. We had a house full of school kids at our Wednesday matinee, and it became obvious to all of us on stage that these youngsters had not been properly instructed as to how to behave at a live performance. The steady stream of chatter, restlessness and texting was extremely distracting to the performers and the rest of the attendees. Granted, most young kids don't get to experience live theatre all that often, and their attention spans have been formed watching TV or movies, or surfing the web. I feel that the live theatre experience is a unique and indispensable one and one that we need to keep alive by exposing kids to it and educating them on how to make it as enjoyable and exciting as it can be.

I guess the single most important thing to impress on a young audience is that they are as visible and as audible where they sit as the actors are on stage.
This seems so obvious, but when the house lights are down and the show is in progress, kids forget that the people up there are not on a screen and can see and hear everything coming across the footlights. We want to hear their reactions and their laughter, which fuel our performances, but there are certain behaviors that can be disruptive and distracting, especially in an intimate space like the Opera House. I think something that is almost never communicated fully to kids is that their responses to what we are doing become an integral part of the performance and contribute to the overall experience of the show. I feel that once they have embraced this fact, they will feel like they are making the show happen with us and might enjoy the added responsibility of that contribution.

Then there's just the issue of etiquette. And these things apply not just to youth audiences but to all live audiences. There was a time when people found themselves in social settings with large groups of people more than we usually do nowadays; whether it be church, or the theatre, or in public situations like on planes or trains, there were certain codes of behavior and social expectations that we no longer give much weight to. Still, I feel that going to the theatre, like dining in a fine restaurant, is an opportunity for us all to enjoy a little bit of formality, lending to the occasion a certain dignity and a sense of consideration for our fellow patrons and the live performers on stage and in the orchestra pit. There was a time that we didn't need someone to make a speech over the PA system before the curtain to remind people to turn off their cell phones or not to unwrap candies wrapped in cellophane during the show. People just knew what was proper and what wasn't. I am not saying that live theatre should be a stuffy affair; rather I feel like the sense of decorum adds to the specialness of the event, again, like going out for a fancy meal in a nice restaurant.

To that end, these would be my suggestions for how to educate kids to go to the theatre.

Think of the performance as a conversation between the actors and the audience. Everything we do elicits a response, whether it be audible or not. Kids should know that we want their laughter and enjoyment of the show, but they should also be aware that the people on stage have feelings, and that jeering and ridicule have no place in any social situation.

Theatre is a place to maybe put on your Sunday best, in terms of dress and behavior. Sure, I wear jeans to the theatre, but I always feel like I need to wear a nice shirt or jacket, and a decent pair of shoes. Just as I wouldn't wear flip flops and a t shirt to a fine restaurant, I wouldn't go that casual to a nice theatre. I think it's a good lesson for kids to make some extra effort in how they present themselves at the theatre--these habits can be carried over to job interviews, to family and church events, and will come in handy when the kids are grown and start dating.

Just as one wouldn't sit in a pew in church or synagogue texting or chatting on a cell phone, one shouldn't do it in a theatre. To me that's basic. And for kids, it's part of teaching them maturity and appropriate social skills. They shouldn't carry on like that in movies either. It's not just about their enjoyment of the experience, it is about every one's enjoyment.

And finally, here's a big pet peeve of mine. The curtain call is the time that the actors not only get to receive the audience's thanks and appreciation in the form of their applause, but is also the time when we can engage directly with the audience, and by bowing, express our thanks for their attention and patronage. The curtain call is not the time to leap from one's seat and race to the exit in order to be the first one out of the parking lot. Again, we can see you out there! And it's very disheartening to perform for two and a half hours and then, in the moment provided for us to share the enjoyment of the job well done with the audience, to see the backs of people leaving the theatre. Stay, everyone, and enjoy the curtain call with us. I promise you, even if it adds a few minutes to your exodus from the theatre (and the parking lot), it will enhance not only your pleasure in the experience of the show, it will give all of us on stage a feeling that what we did really mattered.

Live theatre endures, despite technological advances, streaming videos on the web, 3-D digital movies in stadium theatres; the reason for this is that human beings have an innate desire to connect and mingle and share our common humanity. And the theatre, since the days of ancient Greece, has been the place where we can do that. In an era where technology and an increasingly casual popular culture have served not to unify us, but further distance us from each other, institutions like live theatre continue to provide us with a place where we can experience the cooperative and collaborative energy of the communal moment. I love to think of patrons leaving our show feeling like they shared something special not only with us, but with each other, in a spirit of joy and satisfaction. Let's continue to expose our kids to this unique experience and educate them so they can really appreciate and enjoy the live theatre experience for many years to come.

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